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Pacific Northwest | June 13, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJune 13, home
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Whidbey's Secret: Preserving the historic, the rural and the settled, together
From the southern end of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, where Admiralty Head Lighthouse watches over Fort Casey State Park, the beach bluffs wind to the northwest. The reserve encompasses 17,400 acres, including farms, parks, prairies, forest lands, beaches, residential development and the town of Coupeville.
A thousand places in Western Washington could vie for the title of "quintessential Northwest view," the one vista that seems to sum up why this is such a wonderful place to live.

You've probably been to a hundred of them. That cascading waterfall filling pools like champagne into a flute, a grove of trees lit like a cathedral, or a wilderness beach of pounding surf, birds orbiting towers of rock.

Yet there is one place so accessible, so historic, so panoramic and so representative that it perhaps deserves to be first among equals. The bluff trail at Ebey's Landing, in the middle of Whidbey Island, has been balm for ten thousand souls, a Mecca for urbanites seeking renewal.

On a clear day you can stand in wildflowers above a cobbled beach and take in the Olympic Mountains, the Cascade range from Mount Rainier to Mount Baker, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the entrance to Puget Sound. The foreground for this tapestry is a bucolic landscape of fields, farmhouses and wooded hills that hasn't changed much in a century.
Crockett Blockhouse shows modern use, but its original intent was protection from Indians during the 1855 Indian Wars. Four blockhouses remain on the reserve, part of a collection of historic buildings that also include Coupeville storefronts and pioneer homes.
It's the lack of change that this story is about. At the dawn of the 21st century, there's nothing harder than keeping things the way they were.

"These views did not happen accidentally," says Gretchen Luxenberg, a National Park Service liaison who pushes constantly to sustain them. "People have worked countless hours."

It was fully intended, back in the 1970s, that Ebey's Prairie and adjoining farmland — nearly half of Whidbey's total — would be turned into three subdivisions, the windows of each new house jostling for a scrap of scenery that would then be covered by another house. In other words, the American Way.

Then, in 1978, in response to public alarm and the urging of Rep. Lloyd Meeds, Congress created what amounts to the nation's first "stealth" national park. It was an experiment since replicated in places as diverse as Cape Cod and Idaho's City of Rocks, and revolutionary in its very quiet. The 17,400-acre Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve works, in part, because most people don't know it's there: Even some of the people who live inside this federally nursed enclave aren't aware it is one.

A close look inside a cannon, a substitute for the originals that formed a battery at Fort Casey, is a reminder that Puget Sound residents once worried about enemies attacking by water. The "triangle of fire" was designed to include Fort Worden and Fort Flagler to guard the entrance of the Sound.

This is a "park" with more than 6,500 pieces of private property. It is a federal-state-local contraption in which National Park Service personnel take care not to wear uniforms. You have to look hard to find signs marking its boundaries. Reserve managers have little authority and less money, relying on the good will of the governments they coordinate with.

And after a quarter century, the experiment works, mostly. If you don't count the fact that it's perennially starved of government support. More on that shortly.
The reserve philosophy includes room for homes new and old on the theory that the best way to preserve what was is to carefully accommodate what is.
The remains of Quartermaster Dock lie just off Keystone Spit, which was once planned for development. An abundance of marine life among the pilings now draws divers; it is an Underwater Marine Park.
As important as the beauty of this reserve is its history. Ebey's Landing is one of the places where Washington began, a rare fertile and treeless prairie (probably the result of an Ice Age lake bed, regularly burned by Indians) where Col. Isaac Ebey established an improbable seaport. On the beach facing the windy Strait of Juan de Fuca, Ebey landed goods and carried them up a ravine to his ferry house. An Indian trail across the prairie gave access to Penn Cove and more sheltered waters. Coupeville, founded there two years before Seattle, once had dreams of being the terminus of the transcontinental railroad, and it remains the Island County seat.

Long before Ebey, Penn Cove boasted 40 Indian villages and a native population probably close to that of the cove's population today. Natives and newcomers apparently made similar choices: At the doorstep of the colonel's ferry house (a weathered treasure used in the film "Snow Falling on Cedars") was found a buried hearth that has been dated from 2,000 to 9,000 years old.

Ebey's head was subsequently chopped off by Haida Indians seeking revenge for the death of a chief, and pioneers soon found better ports. But the reserve retains one of the largest concentrations of historic architecture in the state, from pioneer blockhouses to Coupeville storefronts. Coupeville alone has 100 historic-register buildings.

"It went from being the territory's hub to the end of the road," explains Rob Harbour, who oversees the reserve for its trust board. "People were too poor to tear down the soon-to-be-important historic homes." As a result, Hollywood has also used Coupeville for the movies "Practical Magic" and "War of the Roses," and preservation has come to be seen as smart business. As early as 1973, community activist Jimmie Jean Cook won creation of a Central Whidbey Historic Preservation District.
"The quintessential Northwest view" can be reached by a short hike up the bluff trail at Ebey's Landing, where the Olympic Mountains rise to the West. Spin around on a clear day and find Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the entrance to Puget Sound.
Coupeville is the end of the road no longer. The Internet is helping make business possible, and upstairs from one art gallery is Marcon International, one of the biggest tugboat brokers in the world. This combination of commerce and sleepy charm, reasonably priced housing and heartbreaking views, make central Whidbey a place of both promise and peril.

TO UNDERSTAND what an intriguing miracle that view from the bluff is, remember the tumultuous environmental fighting we have been through.

As the West was settled, exploitation was rampant. In response, Congress began creating national parks, wilderness areas and monuments. This eventually provoked a reaction against federal intrusion, and on Whidbey, a conundrum. By the 1970s the island had been "discovered" by everyone from back-to-the-land hippies to second-home yuppies. Private-property rights were colliding with preservation yearnings, and urban newcomers were jostling with island old-timers.
Ebey's Prairie is part working farmland, part tourist destination, and part natural and historic museum in the middle of Whidbey Island.
There seemed to be no way to keep Whidbey Whidbey, and the island was about to be loved to death by a thousand five-acre lots, turning cropland into lawn and farm machinery into rider mowers.

What emerged was a new wave of environmentalism, still playing out today. With the wildest areas more or less saved, emphasis has shifted to preserving rural landscapes people live on and use: a dilemma Europe has been grappling with for decades. The Ebey's Landing Reserve was modeled in part on the "greenline parks" developed in England after World War II to preserve working landscapes there.

Island County is one of seven counties participating in a federal-state-local Northwest Strait Commission, which is trying to protect local waters with research, education and persuasion instead of regulation. County land trusts such as the Whidbey-Camano Trust are attempting to save land in settled areas. Forest-land owners are being asked not to stop cutting but to cut in ways that sustain forest ecology. And so on.

The historical reserve is another attempt to have our cake and eat it, too, by combining Fort Ebey and Fort Casey state parks, county parks, some 2,700 acres of federal and local conservation easements, and good planning into a patchwork that tries to preserve the historic, rural nature of central Whidbey. To date, about one third of the reserve's 27 square miles has some kind of permanent protection, including a large tract of forest land acquired by the Nature Conservancy.
Sally Hayton-Keeva and her husband restored the 1902 San De Fuca one-room schoolhouse at their own expense and now work to retain open space in the heart of Coupeville.
Nineteen primary entities are involved, including Seattle Pacific University, which acquired 100 acres adjacent to Fort Casey in 1954 and uses Camp Casey for conferences.

There now is an almost unbroken swath of protection on the west side of Whidbey, extending from Fort Ebey State Park in the north to the Keystone Spit the state added to Fort Casey State Park in the south. Included is an astonishing mix of ecosystems and geologic features, from the wetlands of Crockett Lake to the glacially formed "kettleholes" of Fort Ebey: a network of forested craters that have become a playground for mountain bikers. Several old blockhouses, a pioneer cemetery, a whale skeleton at the Coupeville dock, and a biking trail along Highway 20 add to the mix.

A primary example of how this works is the story of Fran Einterz and Joyce Peterson, new owners of the Jenne Farm and its 1908 farmhouse. After working in the Peace Corps in Kenya they eventually settled on Whidbey in a $36,000 house, he working in social services, she in occupational therapy. These were hardly big-money people. But when the farm came up for sale, the couple swallowed hard and bought, for a whopping $900,000.
Thumbnail Ebey's Landing Reserve, Whidbey Island
They could do so only because the federal government paid back half the purchase price in return for a permanent easement on 120 acres of the 143 total, keeping it perpetually as farmland. The couple fixed up the house and barns with tireless hand labor and now rent the farm to tourists and wedding parties, hoping to soon build a small caretaker's house for themselves nearby.

"We didn't want a showplace," Fran said of the house, which retains its beautiful 1908 woodwork. "We wanted to make a grandma's house."

The views from the fields, which are being fenced for beef cattle, are stunning. "On a clear day, you can see 100 miles," Joyce says.

Al Sherman of the nearby Sherman Farm traded his development rights in order to acquire a neighboring farm and double in size to 600 acres. He has now passed it on to his and his brother's children.
It was fully intended, back in the 1970s, that much of central Whidbey Island would become subdivisions jostling for scraps of scenery. This is one of many existing developments that lie within the reserve, north of forested land owned by the Nature Conservancy.
Cheryl Engle was less lucky; she and her husband went bankrupt trying to keep the family dairy and had to sell it to the federal government, which the Park Service would have preferred not to do. Whidbey is far from markets and food processors, expenses are soaring, and, "We're the generation it caught up to," Cheryl explains.

But reserve managers are working with the Engles and others to bring the farm back into production, possibly by developing and marketing Whidbey-labeled gourmet products such as cheese or grass-fed beef.

And Coupeville activists hope to create a permanent farmer's market on part of the Krueger Farm — actually a mix of forest and field next to Highway 20 — that they are trying to save.

MARSHALL BRONSON retired from a business career in South America, and at the advice of a relative, came to the reserve to open the Compass Rose bed and breakfast in an 1890s house. If locals are sometimes unaware the reserve exists, Bronson says, out-of-state tourists see it on the National Park registry and sometimes include it in their pilgrimage to visit as many national parks as possible. It doesn't hurt that rain-shadowed Coupeville gets only half the precipitation of Seattle.
A goal to keep the prairie farmland producing crops has been an economic struggle for farmers and several cooperating agencies. The hope is to find niche markets for products such as cheese and grass-fed beef that tout a distinct geographic identity.
Bronson, who serves on the reserve's governing board, is pushing to raise its profile, saying, "We should be proud of this rather than embarrassed."

But this kind of management experiment raises as many issues as it answers.

Coupeville townspeople, for instance, have raised $320,000 toward preserving part of Krueger Farm, and have asked the reserve for support. This would seem a natural alliance, right? Well, not exactly. The farm is within the urban growth boundary of Coupeville, the property is expensive — it will cost $1.46 million to preserve — and it could be argued that growth there will simply go elsewhere on central Whidbey.

Sally Hayton-Keeva, who is helping head the Krueger campaign and, with her husband, has restored the 1902 San De Fuca one-room schoolhouse at their own expense, argues persuasively that retaining this open space in suburbanizing Coupeville makes sense, and the Legislature passed a bill exempting the town from Growth Management Act provisions that would encourage growth to go into a place like the Krueger Farm. "This is the rural heart of Coupeville," Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen said, and the new construction around it is unimaginatively ugly.
Pioneer blockhouses, 150-year-old farmhouses and turn-of-the-century bed and breakfasts make Ebey's Reserve more than scenery.
Still, the issue of how best to spend limited preservation dollars is a sticky one. A footnote to the saga is that Mr. Krueger's name was unfortunately Fred, and "Friday the 13th" fans keep making off with his headstone.

Another issue is that while the trust board reviews designs of new structures going into critical areas of the reserve, its power is only advisory. At one recent meeting, members were holding up paint chips for a new home under construction and debating the relative merits of "Smokebush" versus "Gray Expectations," but this kind of oversight has been enormously controversial in areas such as the Columbia River Gorge. "I can sympathize" with the family building the home, said board Chairman George Lloyd. "I just paid $700 to have a wood window (in place of cheaper but less attractive vinyl or aluminum) made for my place because of you guys."

While architectural controls can be strict in famed areas such as the whaling village of Nantucket, they are a harder sell in the West. Arguing for them is the Park Service's Luxenberg, who says allowing the freedom of bad taste can defeat the success of a reserve with little money to buy things outright. Speaking of a proposed barn, she said, "It scares me to approve a metal pole building, even with extended eaves and a high pitch, because it sets a precedent." Taxpayers paid good money to preserve Grasser's Hill, the pretty meadow drivers see from Highway 20 when they round the head of Penn Cove. What's the point if adjacent development is an eyesore?
Wildflowers proliferate alongside the bluff trail at Ebey's Landing, where the view to the West includes Perego's Lake.
The debate is complicated because Uncle Sam and other governmental entities haven't always put money where their mouth is. After an initial $2 million grant from Congress to help acquire the most critical rights on Ebey's Prairie (the reserve boasts two other prairies, Crockett and Smith) appropriations have been stingy. The Park Service, Bronson complains, has siphoned off some for maintenance and land acquisition at major parks.

The funding problem was worsened last year when both Island County and Coupeville cut their annual contributions, which trigger matching 50 percent federal grants. County Commission Chairman Mac McDowell said he supports the reserve, but when the state cut $1 million from a $17 million budget (because of the recession and tax-cut initiatives), the $10,000 given to Ebey's was an easy target.

Island County has also kept five-acre zoning on reserve lands instead of a more agriculture-oriented 40 acres. This encourages construction of McMansions that chew up views. However, Republican McDowell said he has no interest in downzoning existing property owners.

The result is a "national park" with an annual operating budget of $211,000, two full-time employees, one liaison from Seattle and a specter of accelerating growth. Ebey's Landing is so cash poor that it's astonishing it has worked at all.

Still another issue is a proposal to relocate the Keystone Ferry Landing, which is plagued by shallow water and strong currents. The ferry system's preferred alternatives would either invade wetlands or block views.

And there is no guarantee history will be saved. One Coupeville historic home, the Kenneth House, was knocked down over a weekend because its presence on the National Register of Historic Places gave it protection only from federal actions, not local ones.

Yet after 25 years, the reserve is more remarkable for what it has done: A historic village, working farms, Indian prairie, a network of trails, good restaurants and intriguing galleries have created a middle ground between wilderness and suburbia, at a pittance compared to bigger, more famous parks.

It relies not on regulation but on community and visitor good will. It has become, with Port Townsend across Admiralty Inlet, the closest thing Washington has to a Williamsburg.

Bob Merrick, who moved to Whidbey after retiring from the Army and joined the reserve board, thinks what's happening around Coupeville is positively cutting edge. "This is the wave of the future of park management," he says. "Partnership."

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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